Modern Mishpocha: ‘Practice makes permanent’

By Jenny T. Burns

My dad is forever fond of the phrase, “practice makes permanent.” As a music teacher and b’nai mitzvah tutor, he would try to impress on his students that practicing something incorrectly will create an uphill battle. As a kid and student, I was scared this meant I would be stuck with false information or incorrect music scales forever, like eternal earworms.

As an adult, I’ve come to see this phrase as comforting.

Let’s put a pin in that thought.

In my less-than-tidy dining room, my three-year-old saw me clear a space on the table for a breadboard. On it, I placed a loaf of bread and the bread cover. He watched me hunt for my last IKEA candle, which I had to cut in half and put in two candleholders. He watched all of this and said, “Challah! Shabbat!”

My heart burst. My Shabbat was utterly imperfect. The table had notebooks, a bullet journal, my stack of ‘to-read’ books, some confiscated soothers and half-drunk mugs of coffee. I was 100 per cent going to be using my phone and television over the next 24 hours. We’re talking about a far-from-kosher Shabbat here. The Talmudic sages would probably have turned their noses at my Shabbat table, but whatever! My three-year-old was demonstrating that for him, a challah cover and candles means Shabbat! Shabbat means special bread with a special name. Hopefully, more deeply than this, he will come to feel excited and happy when those objects and traditions make their weekly appearance.

Practice makes permanent. This is how I’m going to raise a Jew. Repetition. Practice. The comforting concept of what is practiced becoming permanent.

It does not matter how haphazard our weekly Shabbat dinner is. Yes, we aim for our multigenerational affair with home-baked goodies and my parents’ stunning dining room table. Other times, though, our Shabbat is not-enough-chairs for everyone, guests leaving early and roast chicken from Costco. What is practiced and permanent, however, is that we do it. We do the thing. We light the candles and say the blessings. We bless the wine/juice. We say “L’Chaim.” We bless the challah after the flourish of uncovering it (even if that means we’re opening a box of pizza). The framework is permanent. It’s practiced and in place and thus flexible and adaptable to the chaos of the week.

I also know that this framework and permanence exists in my life because my parents fought for it. Fancy desserts, chocolate milk, and sometimes a Torah story after dinner. These were the Shabbat dinners I remember from my childhood, and as I grew older, those dinners and rituals did not disappear. Sometimes we were at the family dinner service at our synagogue. Sometimes we had guests. Sometimes, our Shabbat dinner started hours after sundown because my dad was working overtime. A few times, we did our Shabbat blessings in a restaurant because my dad was playing a jazz gig at said restaurant.

Sometimes I loved it. Sometimes I thought it was embarrassing and limiting! Now, I get it. My parents were giving me an ongoing gift of Jewish identity. They were helping me practice. They were making Shabbat permanent. They made Shabbat so much a part of my life that when I was living in England, I would call them on Friday nights to make sure I was included in the Shabbat blessings at home. What a gift? I want to give the same one to my children, too.

Now, I’ve been going on and on about Shabbat, but let’s clarify something – you do not have to practice a weekly Shabbat dinner. You are your own Jew doing your best in this crazy world. Shabbat is just my example of something concrete in my Jewish identity. What permanent Jewish traditions are you instilling in your life? What warm, safe memories are you cultivating in your family for comfort and even identity down the road? Is there room for more? Maybe the answer is ‘Not right now you nosy writer!’ but you know what, maybe the answer is yes. Maybe it’s about including a PJ Library book at bedtime every night. Maybe it’s inviting guests to a Shabbat dinner once a month. The choice is yours. It’s always yours. It’s a gift of practicing to permanence that we give ourselves and the next generation.